Historically, the four primary reasons for married couples to obtain a child via closed adoption have been (in no particular order) infertility, asexuality, having concern for a child's welfare (i.e. would not likely be adopted by others), and to ensure the sex of the child (a family with five girls and no boys, for example). In 1917, Minnesota was the first U.S. state to pass an adoption confidentiality and sealed records law. Within the next few decades, most United States states and Canadian provinces had a similar law. Usually, the reason for sealing records and carrying out closed adoptions is said to be to "protect" the adoptee and adoptive parents from disruption by the natural parents and in turn, to allow natural parents to make a new life.
If anything, openness appears to help kids understand adoption; relieve the fears of adoptive parents; and help birth mothers resolve their grief, according to researchers Harold D. Grotevant and Ruth G. McRoy. “Many of the fears about open adoption do not seem to be a problem,” said Grotevant, a professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author with McRoy of Openness in Adoption: Exploring Family Connections.
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Closed adoptions are rare in the United States, but remain common in international adoptions and were the norm in adoptions in the past, when families usually used an agency to adopt a newborn. The prospective adoptive family would put their name on a list, and wait for the social worker to make a match. The adoptive parents didn't know where the child came from, or who his or her birthparents were. The child might not have even known that he or she came into the family through adoption.
Before the 1980s, most adoptions were kept closed. This is because women who go through unexpected pregnancy simply relocate while pregnant, give birth and then return to their homes. The doctor or an agency then looks for an adoptive family for the child without the mother knowing. This kind of setup can bring about a lot of complications and confusion within the adoptive family, particularly on the adopted child.
Oftentimes the birth and adoptive parents will sign a Post-Adoption Contract (sometimes called an Open Adoption Agreement), putting in writing any promises regarding contact after the adoption is finalized. Even in those states which do not expressly have laws in this area, these agreements can usually be prepared if the parties desire to formalize the agreement. In an increasing number of US states, courts will find these agreements legally enforceable, as long as they serve the best interests of the child. It is not unusual for these agreements to be more like "handshake" agreements, although they offer less protection to a birth parent if the adoptive parent's promises were not honored.
Semi-open adoption doesn't usually involve any post-placement, face-to-face visitation. The children involved don't normally have any direct communication with their birthparents. Like closed adoption, once a child reaches the age of majority in his or her state, they have the option of searching for or being searched for by their biological family. Unlike a closed adoption, those involved in a semi-open adoption usually have access to some basic information that can assist in the search process.
Many adopting parents in non-private adoptions would apply to a local, state licensed adoption agency. The agency may be a member of the national Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The CWLA and many adoption agencies are still in operation today, but with an expanded and somewhat different agenda compared to past decades, as the government has largely taken over some of their previous responsibilities.
While a closed adoption does eliminate any risk of a rocky relationship, it also eliminates the possibility of a fulfilling, positive relationship. Moreover, birth mothers cannot reclaim their children under any circumstance, and adopted children are often less confused about their adoption when they know their birth mothers, who can answer their questions.
The short answer is, yes. It was once believed that openness in adoption would undermine adoptive parents’ ability to feel entitled to parent their children, that children would be confused about the roles and rights of their adoptive parents in light of contact with their birth parents, that adoptive parents would lose all sense of control or that birth parents would not be able to successfully resolve their grief and loss in reference to their decision to place their child for adoption. What thirty-plus years of open adoption has taught us is that children are not confused about the roles of the people in their lives who love them. Adoption specialists now believe that openness can be a great gift — not just for the children — but for all who are involved in the story of adoption.
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A closed adoption is the type where there is totally no contact between the birth parents and the adoptive parents as well as the child. There is also no classifying information shared between families about each other, thereby effectively cutting possible contact between the two. Before the child joins the family, the adoptive parents are provided with non-identifying data about the child and his or her birth family. Once the adoption is concluded, all records are sealed. These sealed records may or may not become accessible to the adopted child once he or she turns 18, but this is dependent on the signed paperwork and local law.
The empty mailbox is just one example of the challenges that families in open adoptions may face. In recent years, we have embraced the concept of open adoption with gusto — yet the journey, for some, has proved to be unexpectedly bumpy. Lack of support, a sudden change in the life of either the adoptive or biological family, logistical pressures — all can complicate matters. Add to that the emotionally charged issues at stake-parenthood, power, identity — and open adoption can make for some combustible family dynamics.
Conversely, if they want a confidential adoption, they should not feel unduly pressured into agreeing to an open adoption. Adopters who agree to an open adoption against their wishes may later find it difficult to fulfill their side of the agreement (for example, sending the birthmother letters and photos). This is terribly unfair to both the birthmother and the child. Agreeing to an open adoption when they don't want one is also unfair to the adopters themselves.
Thankfully, as adoptive families, birth mothers, adopted children and child-placing agencies continued to see the negatives of closed adoption and the positives of open adoption, adoption as a whole began to evolve, and for the better. Today, most adoption agencies allow the birth mother to make most of the decision in the adoption, including how much contact she wants with the adoptive family and the child. It is then the adoption agency’s job to find the appropriate adoptive family for each adoption situation.
In nearly all US states adoption records are sealed and withheld from public inspection after the adoption is finalized. Most states have instituted procedures by which parties to an adoption may obtain non-identifying and identifying information from an adoption record while still protecting the interests of all parties. Non-identifying information includes the date and place of the adoptee's birth; age, race, ethnicity, religion, medical history, physical description, education, occupation of the biological parents; reason for placing the child for adoption; and the existence of biological siblings.
A 1996 study reported in Child Development found that all the children studied “reported positive levels of self-esteem, curiosity about their birthparents, and satisfaction with the openness situation” regardless of whether their adoptions were closed, semi-open, or open. What this seems to mean is that the child's sense of security in his adoptive family is more important than contact with the birth family.